Franca Mancinelli’s prose memoir « Maria, verso Cartoceto » has appeared in translation in The Fortnightly Review, with photographs by Diambra Mariani and Francesca Perlini. Here is the English translation by John Taylor, without the photos and without the Italian text (available on the original link):
MARIA, TOWARDS CARTOCETO
IT IS INSCRIBED in the birth registry office and on every document that belongs to me: Maria, the name I have deleted from this Franca that remains. It has vanished from my signature. A single name: two syllables that express me, that remove me from silence. Two are already a lot in order to exist. And others’ voices acknowledged me by simply calling me Franca: they stopped there, as if there were no need to say anything more.
Maria is the name of my mother’s mother. I like listening to the echo of this word, the depths that open out, through the generations, like a thread passing through darkness. Through this repetition, I seem to bring her back to life, to give her what belongs to her, her due; it has to do with something endless that sinks behind me until it reaches that which is neither visible nor known to me. From me, beyond me, I do not know how and if it will continue.
She is the mother of my mother, of my mother, of my mother. As if telling rosary beads, I could keep repeating it until it turned into a speechless expression, a sound wave coming in and going back to silence. Maria is the name that every woman wears. And indeed in our Marche countryside there has never been a mother who did not give her daughter this name, as an invocation, as a thanksgiving. If it was not as a first name, then as a middle name, to keep watch over her.
But I will call Mary, my mother’s mother, also grandmother, with my childhood affection intact, framing her in those years of her life when we knew each other. I would often fall asleep next to her, in the middle of the bed that belonged to her husband, who passed away when I was four. As I was lying on the thick linen sheets and before closing my eyes, her words would take on the shape of circles in silence; her bosom was a book of unnumbered pages that ended at one step from sleep. The book would begin again in the morning, as I followed her around while she was doing her housework in the kitchen, in the cellar, in the henhouse. Among the series of sounds that she repeated by heart were prayers. Besides these, she taught me a gesture that resembled that of tying shoes: a crisscrossing movement, if performed exactly. The fingertips touch the center of the forehead, the center of the chest, the left shoulder and then the right one. Like a string that ties you together, that pulls you back to the center of your heart, which is always someone else’s heart. Whenever something begins, whenever you head off somewhere, you make this sign of the cross, as if you were on a shore, on wet ground, in front of misty glass or anything else that might be written on. It means: I’m here, at this exact point. And also: I entrust myself to this time and to this space, to this moment and to this place. Don’t let me go astray, keep me closely in sight. I cannot say who might read this message. I know it’s a sign that soon fades away, that we have to repeat all over again. It’s a bit like tying your shoes in the morning to go out. If later, during the day, you find them untied, you cannot go on very far; you have to stop for a moment and retie them.
During the last years of my grandmother’s life, before falling asleep, she would ask for “the blessing,” a small cross that another person had to mark on her forehead. A very painful bone disease made her call out for her mother, repeatedly. We would hurry in to see what she wanted, what she needed; she would often ask us to move the curtain a little, to bring something closer, but often it was just an excuse to see us next to her. When I was a teenager, I was almost used to this litany, and whenever it seemed a mere whim I soon returned to whatever I was doing. She would call out for her mother, but we were only children, children of children, and we could not console her, lift her up in our arms, hold her tight, away from the pain.
One night, as I rushed over in a bad mood to her childlike cries, with my withheld irritation asking what’s the matter?, I heard myself being beckoned to give the blessing for the first time. No one else was at home. My mother had left, forgetting to give it. It was up to me. To me who no longer believed, who had lost this gesture that she had handed down to me, as you might lose an old key whose door you cannot remember. Could I do it? Was I capable? Lying in bed, she could not give herself over to sleep. She was waiting. Waiting for me. Within the silence, she was entrusting me with a power. I approached from the back of the room and, with my finger, traced a small cross on her forehead. She seemed soothed, reassured. I returned to my room.
THERE ARE TWO roads that go from Lucretia to Cartoceto. You cross an area of recent pastel-colored residential houses, until a fork with two signs indicates the same destination. I always take the left route, which seems shorter. Before arriving at the village, the road rises to Salomone, a name that keeps repeating itself in the mind as it searches for something recalling the ancient Biblical king, all the way to the small cluster of houses where the road curves and begins skirting along olive orchards and a large walnut grove. Soon you arrive at a T-junction: the road from which we have come leads to Lucretia; the road we will take, on the right, to Cartoceto; the one on the left to Saltara and Calcinelli. Here there is a monument to soldiers fallen in the First and Second World Wars: a small palish temple whose inner walls are covered with small, oval, black-and-white photos and inscriptions referring to three kinds of death: from wounds, from illness, from captivity. The places: from Albania to Africa, from Russia to Crete. On the central wall a stone slab reproduces, in relief, the image of Our Lady of Graces.
It is for her that I have come up here today, about fifteen kilometers from Fano, following by car the road up which my grandmother walked ever since she was a child. The miraculous fresco painting was in fact originally located at this crossroads, in a shrine, before being detached and placed in the Sanctuary next to the village. I recognize the lineaments of that ancient painting, so often found at home on my grandmother’s bedside table, in a book, or on a sideboard. A small holy picture like a bookmark, a flower crushed between pages: a reminder of the point to which life has brought you, the point from which you can continue. Soon I will find its colors of grass, dust, and earth in the small chapel built for the Madonna, its walls adorned with silver hearts. I do not stay long. In these monuments to soldiers fallen in battle, I often feel something strange: a pomp that barely covers over a deception, an imposture; the masked, official traits of a celebration that does not really concern these lives, which were carried out amid a circle of houses in the hills before the men were called to arms. I look at everyone’s eyes, which have darkened in the photos; I examine the dates and places of the same organized death, shared out into divisions and troops. Someone is missing in action. Perhaps a form of salvation: no longer to be found, to be recognized alongside their identity papers. Free at last. The time that goes by, the emptiness that opens up and takes shape from innumerable roads leading home or to an invisible foreign land, between unknown languages that reach the ear, whispers that resemble those of the dead. But their names are on the list. They have not escaped. They are also here.
I take a few steps outside, towards the crossroads, and consider the three possible directions. I breathe for a moment the vertigo of this supposedly sacred place, defended from demons who are hiding in the foliage of the trees, in the hedges lining the streets, and who shake them like a wind; they shatter the image that we had recognized and kept in the mirror, calling it by our name, detaining it, defending it from the shadows emerging as if from a veil of water. A whisper repeats I in my ear, like the flame of a candle suddenly blown out by the wind. One needs to shelter it with the palm of a hand and walk to the holy image, to the painted mother.
I AM HERE, at the Sanctuary, in the chapel of Our Lady of Graces. At this hour of the afternoon, throughout the entire Sanctuary, only my footsteps and the silent choir of the white candles. The biggest candles crackle up at times, in the silence, as if collapsing, falling back on themselves. Whoever plants them here knows how long their lives last. He can come and look at them as if they were a clock, a calendar. When the oldest one is crushed by time, reduced to the ground like a rind, a cork, suddenly the flame passes to another. In fact there are three candles, each in a different period of its life: the first is almost intact, the second is in the middle, the third towards the end. If you drop a coin into a small steel offering box, a clink resounds as if in a penny bank: you can take a little holy picture with you or a small candle to be planted in the flowerbed along with the others. Nearby is a colony of red candles; graveyards, indeed, but it suffices to look at them for a few seconds to glimpse the tiny protected flame, almost like a life moving slowly in their womb.
You say that praying can also be like this, with a hand making signs on the blank piece of paper. It is the same blankness that appeared on a hem of your dress, which erased the mouth of an angel watching over you; it is the blankness from which they have cut you out, which still surrounds you. There we will return, into that void from which you have appeared, from which you appear with big eyes and small lips, in bud. You have a halo carved with geometric patterns, an ancient solar disk; a veil hides your hair. On one knee is sitting a child who is already a man, dressed in green like angels and meadows, watching you clutch a cross. We also look for your eyes, to read the silence on your face.
Among the hearts on the walls, I search, in jest, the initials of my name. I know they have also come here for me. They have knelt at the wooden pew, lit a candle. I was heading towards death, with the instinct of a migrating animal. But even the tiny divinities of the water and the heavens can be tricked: you find them beached, caught in nets, bewildered by their wounds.
Everything that happens is inside your quiet eyes. While our little heart implodes and shatters, it no longer pumps love to the extremities of the body.
Within the silence, only the sounds of an exhaust fan and the cars outside stir the air, like gusts of wind. Before I leave, I return one last time to gaze at your image of moss, ocher, and wet sand. It is as if you had come from the earth, vanquishing the earth, its crumbling. Your eyes will remain, a sign on a peeling wall.
Franca Mancinelli, translated from the Italian by John Taylor
© English translation John Taylor
Franca Mancinelli’s prose text published here was initially published in Femminile plurale: Le donne scrivono le Marche, edited by Cristina Babino, Vydia editore, 2014.